Thursday, March 1, 2012

Sugar - Copper Blue at twenty years

Musical lineage and influence can be a contentious and opaque issue sometimes but for Bob Mould, his influence on popular culture can clearly be defined and quantified.

As a member of the seminal Hüsker Dü, their drive to push and refine hardcore with a deep love of sixties pop was a crucial part of the evolution of US '80's indie music. Subsequent to this, one Charles Thompson IV posted the following ad in 1986 "Bassist wanted for rock band. Influences: Hüsker Dü and Peter Paul & Mary." The formation of the Pixies proved to be equally pivotal and probably their biggest influence was that Kurt Cobain admitted that Smells Like Teen Spirit was an attempt to rip off the Pixies. In that respect, Bob Mould is two degrees of separation from the musical movement of indie (or grunge) into the mainstream of the early 90's.

After a couple of solo records, Mould returned to his three piece roots with the formation of Sugar in the early nineties. The success of Sugar's debut album Copper Blue (1992) was in some respects a triumph as much as it was reward for the path that Mould and his fellow bands had forged in the 80's (Black Flag, Minutemen, Minor Threat, Replacements etc...). As Mould says in his autobiography, the critical and commercial success of the album seemed just to him:

And this was my payoff. This was my receipt for everything. The crowd had seen Nirvana's cheerleader video and they knew where it came from. And then I was right there, with the right record at the right time. I didn't have to provoke; I just arrived with a smile. All the fighting had been done, Nirvana had won the war, and I showed up to rightfully claimed some of the spoils.

It also helped that Copper Blue was a beautiful realisation of Mould's knack of fusing power pop with a harder edge and arrived fully formed without need of explanation. Hüsker Dü was often hampered by poor production while Mould's subsequent solo albums were at turns pastoral (Workbook) or impenetrably bleak (Black Sheets of Rain). Copper Blue was different; it was aggressively jubilant. Strangely, the album came on the back of a few turbulent years for Mould. The acrimony and dissolution of Hüsker Dü was constantly brought up and this torment was followed by label and production difficulties with his second record as well as losing the mechanical royalties to his first two solo records through mismanagement. How this translated to Copper Blue is anyone's guess because the record sounds so buoyant.

I guess in that sense, (if your guitar is in standard tuning) if the E chord is the mother of all chords that must make G the victory chord. As Mould's long overdue victory lap, this becomes apparent on the first chorus of the first song The Act We Act. The song is all muted chug but when the band hits that big open G chord at the chorus it sounds as if dam of ecstasy has just broken. Mould admits that he was on a creative high when writing Copper Blue and that spark crackles throughout the record.

That's not to say it's all cheery, the lyrics themselves are a trawl through heartbreak, suicide, murder, disease and death but given the high pop sheen and upbeat dynamics of the record it'd be hard to tell as a casual listener because the record is incredibly uplifting. Free to produce a sound he adored (heavily tracked guitars and vocals) and not being slavishly devoted to Hüsker's one-on, one-off double songwriter structure while retaining the three piece power of his former band, Copper Blue unleashed Mould's love of pop from the Beatles infused Hoover Dam to the 70's am radio of If I can't change your mind. The sound leaps through the speakers giving nuance and weight to his songs, something missing in those seminal Hüsker records (don't get me wrong, that sound has its charms but is undeniably thin at times.)

The other great thing about the album is that it is excellently tracked; the songs collide and play off one another in a sequence that is both logical yet exciting. As the final chord of The Act We Act crashes to a halt, the propulsive bass line from A Good Idea starts up without delay which in turn crashes into the chiming harmonics of Changes. The album rolls from one high to the next as song after song rolls by in perfection. Mould has readily admitted that he unconsciously stole the bassline for A Good Idea off Debaser but while it never surpasses the Pixies classic, it stands out as a darker disturbed cousin. In fact, there is a not dud song on the whole album with only the errant Fortune Teller being a slighter weaker song towards the end of the record.

However, what is most striking is how propulsive the entire record is. It is just relentlessly catchy and upbeat with a pounding pulse part in thanks to the tight rhythm section anchored by Malcolm Travis’ driving drums and David Barbe’s sympathetic bass. But Mould is the star of the show here and his voice and distinctive guitar tone shine brightly on the record. Even twenty years later, its production doesn't sound dated or flat as if the songs defy age or understanding, they are perfect melodies that speak volumes to those that choose to hear them. I've tried to convert many people to this record and while many of them will never love it the way I do, I can only but try to spread the word about it.

Age can creep up on you and it seems amazing to me that Copper Blue was released twenty years ago. A few days ago, Bob Mould played the album in its entirety to mark the anniversary and sadly being in Australia, I won't get to see those shows but it did get me thinking about Copper Blue again. I can safely say that it is the record I have heard more than any other in my life. It has been a constant companion since its release and I still listen to it at least weekly if not daily. As such, there is no objectivity in what I've written but if you've ever loved pop music, there is something for you to love on Copper Blue.


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